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GregK Blog

The Best News I've Heard All Week

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To be perfectly clear, there is no sarcasm or irony here. The following news makes me happy to think about: SNK Playmore heads to Live Arcade.

It's like the perfect birthday present. First up is Fatal Fury Special, which was the first great NeoGeo fighting game. I thought about putting the word "arguably" in the last sentence but there's really no question about it.

And now, in honor of the occasion:

[video=d3FglWf95b0Osw]

Thanks Baroque-Legacy for the public service of propogating amazing commercials such as this one. Thanks SNK Playmore for having common sense; not everybody does. I sincerely hope Fatal Fury Special and any other NeoGeo game that makes it to Live Arcade are treated with all due care by whichever developers are charged with the task.

Word Up, Dog

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In this weekend's Saints Row gameplay marathon, I resolve to speak in iambic pentameter as much as I can, in order to 'represent' the English B.A. that I got from the U-to-the-C, and in order to really get into the whole 'vibe'. Expect to hear observations such as:

"That stupid hooker didn't even see
my pickup truck before it hit her side.
It's true, the cops--they noticed what I did.
I shot them them all, though, with my trusty .9."

Am I serious? You'll have to tune in and watch.

"But first there are DS games to be played."

OK, So I'm Not Done Playing Dead Rising...

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...because Brad brought in his copy. But then the game started crashing on me again. I was momentarily freaked out that I'd just ruined Brad's disc and not just mine, but was reassured to see that Brad's disc showed no signs of superficial damage...at least, not like mine. So, I turned my suspicions over to the Xbox I was using. I swapped it for one of the other ones we've got at the office, and I also swapped Brad's disc for my scratched-up one depicted in my previous post. Just in case.

It worked. Might have been my imagination that some of the loading times were longer, but I was able to play the game for at least for a good 20 minutes or so without any crashes or weird hang-ups.

So the good news--for me, anyway--is that my copy of Dead Rising isn't ruined after all, though I can't imagine those scratches are a good thing. The bad news is, it seems this 360 we've been using seems to have some issues.

I'm not posting this to imply any sweeping generalizations; it's more of a correction/continuation to my previous post, with a cautionary tale on the side about not leaving your system standing upright.

I'm Done Playing Dead Rising...

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...not by choice, mind you.

My copy kept crashing on me while I was trying to get footage today. I opened up the drive, looked at the disc, and noticed a half-inch-thick set of scratches all the way along the disc about a half-inch from the edge. The retail Xbox 360 I was using at work was vertically oriented. For that matter, so is my Xbox 360 at home. Everything I've seen about this issue suggests that the problem occurs when your Xbox 360 is standing upright, so take that for what it's worth.

I've had one other game damaged so far. Dead or Alive 4 crashes on me if I try to watch the intro, but it works all right if I just jump into gameplay. I thought I damaged that disc in transit between work and home, but now I figure it was probably my Xbox what done it.

It's a good thing I don't have much time to be playing Dead Rising right now anyway, otherwise I'd be angrily massacring zombies left and right... oh. No, I guess I wouldn't be. Ever had your Xbox 360 eat one of your discs? I need to get home and plant that thing on all fours on top of my useless DVD player.

From Software, Arms Dealer

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There's a lot more Dead Rising I still need to play, but I'm sticking with Chromehounds, at least until I rack up a few more achievements. At first I thought the game's hard-to-earn achievements were too miserly, since they're worth just 20 points a pop for the most part. So if your one squad is the best, hardest-working squad among all the thousands of squads competing in the game during a given persistent war, you get 20 points for that. At any rate, I've resolved not to enter any sort of achievement point race, but I do really like the feeling of earning hard-to-earn achievements that relatively few others would be capable of or willing to earn. For instance, I accomplished my mission of quickly earning all 200 points in Street Fighter II' Hyper Fighting, so that now I can safely boycott the game, having gotten all I want out of it. Now, though, I'm finding myself having to spend a certain other kind of points--Microsoft points, which cost real money--on my path to earn more achievement points, which have no apparent value except in the minds of people like me...

That's because some paid, downloadable parts are now available for Chromehounds. This is something that met with considerable controversy within the game's player community, although it's a fairly outspoken community overall...some ongoing networking issues with the game, as well as perceived balance issues and so-called "cheap" tactics have some people riled up. Network issues notwithstanding, I consider most of the complaints to be the sign of a very good game--one that gets people emotionally invested and maybe a little too involved for their own good. From the dozens of hours I've spent playing Chromehounds to date, I consider it one of the most interestingly well-balanced games I've played in a while. You have to make very interesting, intuitive trade-offs when building your mech, since heavy armor and weapons come at the expense of speed and maneuverability, but it's even more nuanced than that. (Shameless self-promotion + Chromehounds promotion: If you want to get a feel for the great battles in this game, check out this evening's Chromehounds tournament, Dogs of War, anchored by Justin, Brian, Rich, and me.)

So when developer From Software releases weapons you can buy with real currency, rather than the near-useless in-game currency, what happens? There are a few possibilities. The developer could take the easy way out and allow people to spend money on stronger versions of "free" weapons. This would be disappointing and would hurt the game over the long run. Or the developer could make unique and interesting weapons, which are different but not better than the free counterparts. This, I wouldn't have as big of a problem with.

I never got into Magic: The Gathering because it seemed like a big scam. In order to be a competitive player, essentially you needed to keep buying new booster packs. I paid my $60 plus tax for Chromehounds, and I think that's plenty to spend on any one game. I'm still very into it but I'm not prepared to have to pay to continue to be competitive against other players. Besides, having to download parts outside of the context of the game just doesn't feel right, when the game has its own currency system already in it.

I'm about to go home for the weekend and play some Chromehounds, in addition to several other games I'm juggling right now. But first, I'm going to buy at least one of those downloadable parts and see how I feel about it.

For what it's worth, I never did try any of the Oblivion downloadable content...because I'd already earned all 1,000 achievement points from that game. I suppose the difference is I still have more work to do in Chromehounds.

Sick of Their Games? Why Not Make Your Own?

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For more evidence that the game industry is now undergoing an important transformation, be sure to read the news about Microsoft's XNA Game Studio Express, a forthcoming toolset intended to let hobbyists and independent developers make and distribute their own games. As someone who thinks he loves games enough to want to make them, I found this news to be extremely exciting on first impression. Then I quickly remembered how similar attempts have been made in the past, unsuccessfully. What's more, if this plan does succeed, what will the consequences be?

Here are the apparent facts of the matter: Later this month, the beta toolset will become available for download, providing aspiring game designers with supposedly high-end game design tools and an easier-than-ever-before platform for making their own game content. For about $100 a year, you'll also be able to join the Creators Club and gain the ability to transfer your work to the Xbox 360 and distribute it there. Also, a professional version of these tools will be coming next year and will be the means by which small-time developers could potentially make money off of the games they make through this service. The low-end versions of the software will not be for profit.

This program seems analogous to the independent movie scene. It used to be that filmmaking was prohibitively expensive for regular old people, due to the costs of the equipment involved. Today a few tens of thousands of dollars can net you professional-grade gear. That's still expensive and doesn't factor for special effects budgets or anything like that, but fundamentally, the barrier to entry is a lot lower now than it used to be. So those people with an artistic vision for a film can go ahead and make one. In turn, Microsoft is saying that these tools will let those with a passion for the idea of making games, make games. The floodgates of creativity then open wide, or so the theory goes. A lot of game industry people have been talking for a long time about how the industry needs to help nurture independent game development in a manner much like this. So, much like with the downsizing of E3, the writing was on the wall that something like this was going to happen.

In referring the to need for this type of program, Microsoft reps brought up the example of Counter-Strike, a home-grown game that became a phenomenon. It's an interesting example to use, because Counter-Strike was clearly a double-edged sword. Do you know why Counter-Strike became one of the most popular games ever made? Two reasons: It was good, and it was free. If you're trying to sell something, it's difficult to compete against something similar that's being given away. So if Microsoft's upcoming toolset will truly allow us to make games of, say, Halo 2's caliber--which I don't really believe will be possible by small teams or individuals--how will the games business respond or be affected? Counter-Strike might have been great for game players, but it wasn't necessarily great for the game business. Businesses are designed to make money, after all.

Let's assume that, over the long run, it'll be a good thing if more people could make games. There will be YouTube-esque mechanisms that cause the best of these games to rise to the top, to the benefit of everyone interested in playing good stuff. However, Microsoft's plan could fail for any number of reasons, starting with the most important one of all: Will those tools really be all they're cracked up to be? I noticed on Joystiq that I wasn't the only one who still remembers the Net Yaroze, a spin-off of the original PlayStation that was supposed to put powerful game-development tools in the hands of the everyman. I remember being super-excited about it when I first learned of it, and then being completely put off by the prohibitive cost (about $1,000) and numerous other restrictions. The whole thing faded into obscurity. You can even go back to all those games with names like "Pinball Construction Set" and "Bard's Tale Construction Set" and so on. Game players have always aspired to be game makers; in that sense, Microsoft's intentions here are really nothing new. In turn, the challenges of successfully pulling off this kind of plan are nothing new either. No one's succeeded yet.

However, many aspects of Microsoft's plan sound far more well-thought-out than previous attempts along these lines. The tie-in between the PC and Xbox 360 sounds very interesting, for starters, and the apparent success of Xbox Live Arcade bodes well for a similar program filled with user content. And besides, we're talking about Microsoft, an infinitely wealthy company that has a vested interest in the proliferation of its own technology and software. It's the sort of company with the power to pull something like this off. It's the sort of company that's been very successful at taking other people's good ideas, appropriating them, and making them ubiquitous and highly profitable.

Ultimately I think this XNA announcement sounds like both a great opportunity and a grave threat to the game development status quo. If more games like Counter-Strike happen, the need to spend actual money on games decreases. Microsoft might end up laughing all the way to the bank if Xbox Live turns out to be the main distribution mechanism for a bunch of great stuff, while aspiring game developers will use this software suite to build their portfolios and go on to get paying jobs in the game industry... though, that last part assumes all the big publishers out there will continue to run profitable businesses filled with growing numbers of employees. And for all the reasons suggested here and more, I don't think that's a very safe assumption anymore.

This much I'm sure of: When XNA Game Studio Express becomes available on August 30, I'm going to get it.

Better-than-New IP: The Dead Rising / Gears of War Connection

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The best thing about having a bunch of new consoles out on the market is that game publishers forcibly become more willing to take some chances on new games. That means fewer sequels and more original properties, plus more creative risks on new types of content. But the situation isn't so cut-and-dried. These days, what passes for original games (that is, "new IP", or intellectual property) is really more like familiar concepts with a fresh perspective and a new look. I'm not complaining--I'm just pointing out that the games we've been hailing for their uniqueness and originality still aren't falling far from a very familiar, old tree. As a matter of fact, I happen to think this is very good news.

My evidence of this includes Dead Rising and Gears of War. Dead Rising is a horror action game from Capcom, the makers of Resident Evil. Gears of War is a visceral sci-fi shooter from Epic Games, the makers of Unreal Tournament. You hear about these games as promising examples of "new IP", but how new are they, really? Arguably they're just what you'd expect from the respective developers.

You know what? They're new enough for me. Apparently they're new enough for a lot of people. Dead Rising is shaping up to be one of this summer's biggest sleepers, while Gears of War's success seems practically guaranteed from all the attention it's been getting almost from the day it was announced. So what's the secret? How can a game like Dead Rising become a popular hit while Capcom's own Okami (for example), which has earned a ton of critical praise over the months, doesn't seem to have nearly the same chances of success?

It's because Dead Rising is new-but-familiar. Same with Gears of War. Meanwhile, one could argue, with varying degrees of cynicism, that a game like Okami is too original for its own good. People don't have a frame of reference to it and can't relate to it. It might be a fantastic game, but a lot of people simply won't be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. They don't get it.

Dead Rising, they get. It's from the Resident Evil people except it's faster and even gorier. Gears of War, they get. It's from the UT people but with crazy monsters and chainsaws. These games benefit from all the advantages of being new, since players will approach them with the excitement of knowing that they'll be in for a variety of sights and sounds they've never experienced before. Yet these games carry few if any of the risks of being original and different, since there's still a high level of comfort (for lack of a better term) when you think about diving into them. Capcom knows its zombies. Epic knows its grim, futuristic shooting action. They're like a hotel bath robe, those games. You know they're gonna feel good and you can't wait to throw them on to experience just how good. That and you wish you could steal them.

Hypothetical situation: What if Epic's CliffyB smilingly announced that he was developing a fantasy-themed role-playing game set in a mystical land filled with powerful woodland creatures? I think everybody would be a lot more skeptical of how well that game would finally turn out. You wouldn't be watching the documentary on MTV, I can tell you that.

There are other slightly different examples of what I'm talking about. One of the best, most successful Xbox 360 games so far this year is Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, a game that's really quite different from previous Ghost Recon installments. You might as well consider it new IP, and yet technically, it's a sequel. But Ubisoft wisely tied it into a franchise that a lot of people know and basically trust. They know Ubisoft has made great games like this in the past, so they were willing to take a chance on a new one. Sure enough, it turned out to be outstanding, at least for the 360.

I love it when crazy, completely different games come out. One of my favorite games from last year is Killer7, which really isn't fun to play in the traditional sense and left me feeling dazed and bewildered. I wasn't at all surprised that it sold poorly, but nonetheless I'm thankful that the forces governing the game industry sometimes permit games like Killer7 to happen. Meanwhile, though, I find games like Dead Rising and Gears of War to be thoroughly encouraging by what they represent. They're proof that games without a "2" or a "III" or even a colon in their titles can still get a lot of people very excited. More to the point, these games can get people a lot more excited than other games do, by virtue of their careful balance of both fresh and familiar.

My Wish List for a PSP Lite

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On many occasions in the past, I've admitted to being completely, utterly mistaken in my expectations for how the Sony PSP versus Nintendo DS war would pan out. First, let me go ahead and do that once more in penance. I got a great first impression from the PSP, which seemed like an amazing portable game system, while the DS initially left me cold, and seemed like a gimmick. Time passed, games came out, and I found myself spending probably 10 times as much time with my DS as with my PSP. In so doing, I also found that the DS had a solid, function-over-form feel to it while the PSP's controls and interface often seemed to interfere with my enjoyment of the relatively few games for the system I wanted to play.

Now a game that's good enough for me to dust off my PSP has finally come out. Tekken: Dark Resurrection is the best fighting game I've played since Dead or Alive 4, and the fact that it's portable is kind of crazy. However, playing it reminds me of all the things I wish I could be fixed in a revised PSP device. Here they are:

-Make it quieter. Not only is the UMD drive obnoxiously loud, but when you have the volume set to its lowest possible setting that isn't "off", the system makes a racket. I'm sure I'm not the only one who likes playing portable games before going to sleep. But since I have a wife and baby in the same room, the only function my PSP serves when the family's asleep is as an alarm clock. Where did I leave those stupid earphones...?

-Fix the battery life. Why does my PSP run out of batteries when I'm not even using it? My DS seems to hold its charge much better than my PSP. One of my colleagues made an interesting observation--the PSP almost seems to hold its charge better when it's in sleep mode than when it's off. For that matter, the device should make it easier and more obvious when you're powering the system off versus putting it in sleep mode. I'd much prefer a power button than the PSP's weird slider thing.

-Fix the square button. When the intial reports came out about the unresponsive square button, I scoffed. Well, they were right. Playing a precise game like Tekken, it's annoying that one of the most commonly used attacks in the game (left punch, mapped to the square button by default) is less responsive than the other attacks.

-Fix all the buttons along the bottom. When I'm playing in the dark, it's almost impossible to use any of the buttons relating to volume control and so on. They're hard to get a feel for and invisible when there isn't some ambient light. As a rule, buttons should have a firm, responsive feel to them, rather than give you the impression that you're just pushing on solid plastic.

-Fix the D pad. It tells you something that at least two games have shipped with replacement stick-on D pads for the PSP, designed to give the player more leverage. Without such aid, the PSP's D pad is stiff and unresponsive, kind of like the Xbox 360's. The difference is, at least the Xbox 360 has a good analog stick, which leads me to the next point...

-Fix the analog stick. I feel like I have a light touch playing video games. I've never physically broken a videogame controller in my life. So why is it that it seems like I'm always about to break my PSP's analog stick whenever I'm using the system? It's a flimsy, finicky thing. And the fact that there isn't a similar stick on the other side has led to numerous design problems, what with all those PS2-to-PSP ports that simply remove the ability to manually control the camera.

-Kill the WiFi switch. Is that thing really necessary? Just another moving part that can break and probably adds cost to the manufacturing.

-Fix the loading times. This is a portable game system, intended to let you play for a few minutes at a time if that's all you've got. If that time is taken up just waiting for a game to start, you're not going to be a happy camper. There've been some otherwise-great PSP games with heinous loading times, and I've just had to avoid them. My tolerance for long loading times in any games, especially portable games, definitely hasn't improved over the years. Loading times should be getting shorter, not longer.

-Give it away for free. Look, this is a wish list, OK?

Those are all my gripes, having played with the system on and off for over a year. The PSP's screen is still as magnificent as ever, and technically the system is amazing...just look at Tekken. But, man, I hope I can go back through my favorite PSP games and play them on a system that just felt a little more solid and responsive. Sony has redesigned all of its consoles at one point or another, and the success of the DS Lite couldn't have gone unnoticed by the company...so I'll be crossing my fingers that the next PSP model will fulfill all the untapped potential of the device. It's a great system that could be much better with just a few important tweaks.

Recent Acquisitions

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Though I'm very fortunate to work in a profession that lets me play a lot of new and different games, it's important to me to regularly spend my own money on gaming so that I don't lose sight of the value and the cost of this stuff. I'm pretty selective about what I buy for a variety of reasons, though, including an increasing lack of physical storage space for more game-related materials in my home...I've got these fat tupperware bins in storage filled with NeoGeo and N64 and Dreamcast games I'll probably never play again, stuff like that. I used to just want everything; now I only want stuff I can imagine going back and playing. In light of this, here are the most recent additions to my exclusive private reserve:

     

I just realized they're all Japanese.